Bose QuietComfort 20 headphones review

March 14, 2014
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See the Bose QuietComfort 20’s on Amazon 

When noise cancellation technology first came onto the audio market, several headphone makers tried their hand at incorporating the technology in their headphones. Most thought of it as just an added feature to market their headphones, but Bose took the technology seriously and went hard at work in order to perfect noise cancellation technology. The result were some of the best noise cancelling headphones on the consumer headphone market, in the Bose QC 15 over-ear headphones and the on-ear QC 3, but Bose was yet to incorporate the technology in a pair of in-ears.

Enter the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear headphones, Bose’s first pair of noise cancelling in-ears have set themselves on a mission to see if they could put a wall between you and the outside world in order to immerse you in a world of music, and all in a small, portable package. To find out, we went ears-on with the QC 20’s and we’ve come out very impressed.

What is noise cancellation and how does it differ from other in-ears?

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Before we can get into the true details of the QC 20’s, we must first understand what noise cancellation is. Essentially, noise cancelling headphones use DSP (Digital Signal processing), where an internal microphone and an audio processor observe the sound around you and then invert the signal and insert it into the audio. Since this wave is 180˚ out of phase with the opposite sound, it “cancels” it out. While this won’t block out high frequency sound, it does manage to block off background noise on public transport, make office environments pretty much silent, and turn an airplane passage into a less noisy affair.

Even custom moulded noise isolating in-ears can't match a great pair of noise cancelling headphones, and the QC 20's are definitely a great pair of noise cancelling headphones.

This sounds a little detrimental to sound quality, and it often is. First off, it produces a little hiss of white noise (some headphones produce less of a hiss than others) which some claim they can hear, but most people can’t actually hear. But this isn’t actually the biggest problem. The big problem is that implementing noise cancellation into headphones is expensive, and that means that the money spent on drivers is often diverted towards the noise cancellation technology. That means noise cancelling headphones are pretty expensive (the QC20’s we are reviewing are $299), and often won’t match headphones in the same price bracket when it comes to sound quality. Of course, they make up for this in other ways.

But how are the QC20s different from in-ears which aren’t noise cancelling? Well, there are two forms of noise reduction, ‘noise isolation’ and ‘noise cancellation’. Noise isolation involves a physical seal between you and the outside world. The better the fit, the less noise that will get through. However, even custom moulded noise isolating in-ears can’t match a great pair of noise cancelling headphones, and the QC 20’s are definitely a great pair of noise cancelling headphones.

Out of the box

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The Bose QC20 comes in a simplistic housing. Bose has two versions of the QC20, the standard set that we are reviewing, and the QC20i, which comes with two additional buttons which work iPhone music control and Siri voice commands. The Android, Blackberry and Windows compatible QC20 still comes with the standard answer and end call button, and “aware mode” control.

You simply slide the box from the sleeve and you pull open the Bose flap. Once the flap is opened, and the protective foam is removed, you will see the the headphones. Both ear buds and the control module are fully exposed and ready to go. After pulling the plastic housing out of the way, some documentation for support and a Bose carrying case are revealed. The carrying case is a nylon-mesh material. Inside you will have the documentation for the headphones, and also additional ‘Stayhear’ tips. The ‘Stayhear’ tips are Bose’s patented design that are made for comfort and a great seal, and in our tests they’ve worked extremely well. It also comes with the USB cable for charging the noise cancellation features.

Design

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The Quiet Comfort Earbuds, at first glance, appear to be like any other normal earbuds, but when you take a closer look you see a few differences. First there is a 3.5 by 1.25 inch control module. This control module allows you to turn on and off the noise cancellation.

The Quiet Comfort Earbuds, at first glance, appear to be like any other normal earbuds, but when you take a closer look you see a few difference.

When I first heard about noise cancellation I cringed a bit, because I assumed conventional batteries were being used. I was quickly relieved when I saw that it had a built in rechargeable lithium ion battery and it supported the standard micro USB cable for charging, meaning you’ll find a charger pretty much everywhere you go. Unfortunately, it’s not removable, so if it does fail, you’ll need to send it back to Bose. Pick your poison, I guess.

The built-in rechargeable battery provides up to 16 hours of listening time, but what is really unique is that you can listen even when the battery is drained, it’s just that the noise cancellation features will not be active and they’ll function like regular noise isolating in-ears. This is a big improvement over other headsets that requires batteries to use the headphones in any capacity.

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Fortunately, Bose has also included a battery indicator light to help tell when the juice is running low. It’s located right next to the power button. The control module is a moulded matte rubber and its very grippy.

A new feature introduced with the QC20 is the ‘Aware’ mode. Each of the headphone’s earpieces have two tiny noise-cancelling microphones on them. During the regular noise cancelling-mode, all four of these microphones are picking up external noises to determine the proper amounts of inaudible out-of-phase tones required to drown out the external noise. When pressing the ‘Aware’ button on the remote, two of the microphones passes external sounds through, so you can still hear some outside sounds. Great to use when you need to quickly hear your surroundings.

The cord is two-tone, thick, and tough. The cord sports a black and grey color scheme and feels that it’s made for the long haul, but only time will tell. Also about 7 inches down on the cord you will find the inline mic and remote. This part is made from a normal plastic and has two buttons on it and also the mic hole. There is nothing that is truly tangle free, but this cord is the closest thing to it. Due to the thickness of the cord I am able to toss these headphones into my pockets and when I pull them out they’re tangle free.

The case that it comes with is a cloth zipper case. The material feels like middle of the line nylon, but should still offer some protection against regular wear and tear. The case is compact, just 5 inches long and 2.75 inches tall, which is perfect for sticking in your pocket.

The earbuds are also two tone. Grey and silver with a black stroke around the “Bose” logo. The silver part is perforated and it actually looks like a speaker. The earbuds are a little bit bigger than other earbuds in this price range, but for good reason. The Qc20’s follow a clean color scheme, and style. This goes from the packaging all the way down to the headphones. The overall presentation is stylish, clean, and modern.

Comfort

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The QC20’s are an extremely comfortable wear due to the light weight of 1.55 oz (44g). The ‘stayhear’ tips may look intimidating, but do their job shockingly well, Sliding into your ear easily, and locking into place with a slight turn of the wrist. The tips also come in 3 different sizes as well: small, medium and large. The tips are soft, have a lot of give, and really conform to your ear. The silicone ear-tips seal off the ear canal, and have an extra fin-like piece that presses against the ear for added stability.

The QC20's are extremely comfortable, but there are a few qualms.

These earbuds are designed for the traveler in mind. The tips do not get abnormally warm during activity, and the cord is thick enough so it does not bounce much when walking. You can also clip it to your jacket, for even more stability.

There are a few annoyances with the headphones when out and about. If I have one complaint, it’s the control module which can at times get in the way when walking.It is a bit cumbersome, but with some quick adjustments like moving it to your jacket pocket which are normally deeper, it should alleviate that issue. Also, if your headphone jack is at the bottom of your phone, it makes an awkward mess when trying to pull your phone out from a tight space.

As a sedative listener, the lightweight construction and soft tips makes the listen an enjoyable one. After a few hours, my ears can become sore where the ‘stayhear’ tips are pressing against. I know that nothing compares to over the ear headphones, but other earbuds around this price range have managed to make long time usage more comfortable. However, in conjunction with the secure fit, these are a true pleasure to wear in all circumstances.

Performance

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The first question that is always posed in regards to headphone is how they sound? Especially when it comes to Bose their sounds signature is one of the best in the consumer market. Well, I can proudly say that the sound signature is what you expect.

The first thing I noticed when placing the headphones in my ears was the bass. I was impressed by the amount of bass produced, and how low the headphones got. Listening to the song ‘Rap God’ by Eminem it provides a great example on the low bass the headphones manage to pick up. During the song the bass dips down low, and during my tests these earbuds can get down to around 20 Hz on the low end.

The lows and highs are exceptional, but the softer mids can sometimes be overpowered by the highs. Overall, it's a laid back, warm sounding pair of headphones.

Listening to a song that has more of a punchy bass line like on the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams it keeps the bass tight and quick. The bass isn’t quite as boomy as other in-ears but it feels just right. As always, you can EQ tweak these to add more bass if that’s your cup of tea.

On the high end of things, listening to a song that has a vocalist with a range really shows off the versatility of these headphones. Listening to the song Ellie Golding “I Need Your Love”, it produces beautiful tonality when she hits the higher notes. Unlike other earbuds, this does not have that clashing sound that could make the listening experience uncomfortable. There is a smooth transition from lows to highs, but the mids come in a bit soft, and are sometimes are overpowered by highs.

Even with the volume cranked all the way up, the sound stays consistent and clear. The only draw back is that the highs sometimes could be overemphasised. Soundstage for the QC20’s is exceptional for earbuds. It’s tough to create separation with earbuds, but some how Bose figured out a good way at emulating it. It’s enough separation to immerse yourself fully in the music, especially important since the biggest selling point is the noise cancellation to help immerse you in the music..

When turning on the noise cancellation you instantly hear the difference. Noise seems to drop down to almost inaudible. My commute to work is in a car, but I can only imagine the amount of satisfaction these would give if you use public transportation daily. Flipping the switch can easily make the person sitting behind you talking pretty loudly, turn into a quiet murmur, and once music is laid over that, the nuisances can no longer be heard. The cord is also pretty much silent when rubbing against other objects, and it all adds up to the overall feeling of “quiet and comfort”.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, these are by no means the greatest sounding in-ears ever to grace the planet, but it’s a combination of comfort, superb noise cancellation, and a laid-back warm tone that makes these one of the best in this price range, perhaps not for their sound, but for the overall package.

No other in-ear can touch the QC 20's noise cancelation, so if you are a frequent flyer, these are pretty much a must have.

No other in-ear can touch the QC 20’s when it comes to noise cancelation, so if you’re a frequent traveller, these are pretty much a must have. But at $299 others might find it a little difficult to swallow so much for a pair of in-ears. It really comes down to your requirements,so if you find your noise isolating in-ears to do the job of blocking out noise well enough, you can find other in-ears which provide a better sound for

See the Bose QuietComfort 20’s on Amazon 

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